It’s that time of the season again in the Okanagan and Similkameen Valley regions of British Columbia. For the past 28 years the pending signs of Canada’s premier triathlon event are obvious at this time of year. The peaches, apricots and cherries have been collected and have been long been consumed. The wine grapes and apples are not quite ready to be picked in this rich fruit bearing region of the Canada’s most western province. Every year this fruit crop interlude is punctuated by the gathering of hundreds of athletes ready to harvest the rewards of their months of preparation and training for Subaru Ironman Canada in Penticton.
The modest beginnings of this race were the result of the visionary founder of the race, Ron Zalko. He poured his heart, time and money into nurturing the race off its feet in 1983. Penticton’s provincial neighbor to the north, Kelowna was first offered the opportunity to host this fringe sporting event, but rejected Zalko’s race venue courtship.
At the time, the municipal government of Penticton and a half-dozen local supporters were immediately amenable to Zalko’s advances. The modest beginnings of this race saw twenty-three men and one woman enter the waters of Lake Okanagan on August 20, 1983 to compete in what was called the Ultra Triathlon. It was then that the 28-year-old relationship with the community, organizers and competitors was born.
The upstart race garnered international recognition in 1986 when it became Ironman Canada due to its association with the Ironman World Championship in Hawaii. At that time, the race joined Ironman New Zealand and Japan as one of three qualifying events for Hawaii. The impact of the coveted championship entries was immediate. Entries have climbed yearly and the event attracted predominately international fields – Americans, Europeans and Japanese treated Ironman Canada as their own. In the 90’s it was not uncommon to see athletes from just the state of California outnumber the representation of all the other forty-nine states combined, in addition to all other countries.
Until 1999 Ironman Canada was the only sanctioned Ironman race in North America. The Ironman continental expansion welcomed the addition of Ironman Lake Placid and Ironman Florida. Now Ironman Canada is one of eight official Ironman races on the continent.
Subaru Ironman Canada has a profound history, in terms of longevity, competition and humanity. Since the first winners, Mike Wagstaff and Dyanne Lynch, took the titles in 1983, we have seen a “who’s who” of the Ironman royalty race in Penticton. Ironman World Champions Paula Newby Fraser, Peter Reid, Heather Fuhr, Lori Bowden, Scott Tinley, Scott Molina, Erin Baker, Thomas Hellriegel and Faris Al Sutan have all competed, and many have won.
The race has not been without a cast of characters, either. Sister Madonna Buder, 80, has raced here on numerous occasions and will so again in 2010. Cowman, with his head dress complete with horns, has grazed the course, too. Iron Cops for Cancer, with a team 125 strong, have raised millions for their cause.
In 1986 everyone in Penticton was thoroughly touched as they watched a father tow, then cycle and push his physically challenged son over the course. Rick and Dick Hoyt’s astonishing and emotional story is deeply entrenched in Ironman history and that history started at Ironman Canada.
It is also the stories of those racing after transplants, suffering from cancer and Cystic Fibrosis, in bare feet or borrowed shoes, or with family members that have enlisted so much emotion. A human gamut of life events have been experienced and celebrated on the course. Weddings, proposals, births, racing for a cause and overcoming life’s many obstacles have all been an integral component of Ironman Canada’s culture.
It is not just the professionals or the human interest stories that make this race, either. The individuals that mix family, career, community and sport that make this race what it is. Regular individuals who come in all shapes, sizes, speeds and backgrounds chase a dream – they are ordinary people doing an extraordinary thing.
Part of Ironman Canada’s appeal is the course, which offers a truly unique race experience. The traditional single-loop swim and bike courses, along with the out-and-back run serves up a variety of sights and challenges. Those competing will be exposed to the pristine waters of Lake Okanogan, lush farmlands, bountiful orchards and vineyards, along with arid regions and mountain passes. There are locations on the course that require no further explanation other than their names. McLean Creek Road, Richter Pass, the rollers, the out-and-back, Yellow Lake, the Peach, and The Sicamous conjure up visions of the degree of difficulty or just places to meet for a swim or ride.
Over the years competitors at Ironman Canada have hit the pavement, the ditch and mountain sheep on this course. They have been subjected to oppressive heat, sheeting rain, gale force winds, pelting hail and lingering smoke from forest fires. As unpredictable the weather can be on race day, the one thing that can be guaranteed for competitors is breath-taking views of the terrain throughout their journey on race day.
Whatever race day and the race dishes up to those participating, they immediately impacted by the dedication and enthusiasm of the 4,500 plus army of volunteers. The volunteers pride themselves to care for every need of the athletes from registration to the finish.
In the world of triathlon, Penticton and Ironman Canada are synonymous. During race week, banners and message boards welcome “Ironman” to the city. It is all part of the pride and ownership the citizens present to the world at the end of every summer, just like they have done for the last 28 years.
Shawn Skene is a freelance triathlon writer and Multi Sport coach from Red Deer, Alberta.